Hurt, Sir John Vincent
- Anthony Hayward
Hurt, Sir John Vincent (1940–2017), actor, was born at the maternity home in Holywell Street, Chesterfield, on 22 January 1940, the son of Revd Arnould Herbert Hurt (1904–1999), curate of Holy Trinity Church in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, and his wife Phyllis, née Massey (1907–1975), an engineer who performed in amateur dramatics. In 1945 the family moved to Woodville, near Swadlincote, Derbyshire, where his father was vicar at St Stephen’s Church, and Hurt boarded at St Michael’s preparatory school, Otford, Kent. He was later educated at the Lincoln School as a boarder after his father became pastor at the Holy Trinity & St Mary the Virgin Church, Old Clee, Grimsby, Lincolnshire, in 1952, then a year later curate at the nearby St Aidan’s Church, New Cleethorpes.
Hurt admitted to having a ‘miserable’ academic career (The Independent, 16 Sept 2002) but found enjoyment in performing in school productions, first as a girl, Mytyl, in the Maurice Maeterlinck play The Blue Bird at St Michael’s, then, with the Lincoln School Dramatic Society, taking roles such as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘They preferred me to play the female parts,’ he said. ‘I was small and I had a high voice’ (The Guardian, 12 March 2006). However, with a talent for art and his parents preferring that he teach that subject instead of becoming an actor, he attended Grimsby School of Art (1957–9). He then won a scholarship to study for an art teacher’s diploma at St Martin’s School of Art, London (1959–60), where his assignments included painting a nude Quentin Crisp, but he dropped out after a year on winning a scholarship to train as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1960–62), during which time he shared a flat with Ian McShane, another student.
On 13 December 1962 Hurt married Annette Robertson (b. 1940), an actress (and daughter of Harold James Robertson, factory hand), but the marriage was dissolved two years later. Hurt’s career progressed following his film début in the drama about university students, The Wild and the Willing (1962), as Phil Corbett, a quiet outsider and room-mate of McShane’s rebellious Harry Brown, although for the next few years he concentrated on theatre while landing occasional television roles. He and McShane made their professional stage débuts as violent teenagers (Hurt playing Knocker White) in Fred Watson’s first play, Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger, during a Royal Shakespeare Company experimental season at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1962. The production was staged under club conditions, which meant that its obscene language and shocking story of a crying baby being killed by being fed alcohol were not subject to censorship by the lord chamberlain.
Hurt continued in the West End by joining the cast of Arnold Wesker’s national service play, Chips with Everything (Vaudeville Theatre, 1962), then acted Len in Harold Pinter’s The Dwarfs (Arts Theatre, 1963), which won him the London Theatre Critics’ award as most promising newcomer, Jones in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence (Wyndham's Theatre, 1965), and the title character, a would-be revolutionary, in David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (Garrick Theatre, 1966), a part he reprised in the 1974 film version.
That last stage performance brought Hurt to the attention of the director Fred Zinnemann, who cast him in his breakthrough film role as Richard Rich, who perjures himself to condemn to death Thomas More (played by Paul Scofield), in the Oscar-winning 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, based on Robert Bolt’s stage play. He followed it with two less than successful films made by big-name directors, taking a supporting role in Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967) and playing the title character in John Huston’s Sinful Davey (1969). He was back on course in 10 Rillington Place (1971), receiving a BAFTA best supporting actor nomination as Timothy Evans, who was framed for murder and executed in the real-life story of the serial killer John Christie.
Hurt was back on stage as Mick in a revival of the Pinter play The Caretaker (Mermaid Theatre, 1972) and as Tristan Tzara in Stoppard’s Travesties for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Aldwych Theatre, 1974). He then landed his best television roles, both of them productions about real people—contemporary and historical—that provoked controversy for their sexual content, catapulted him to stardom, and confirmed him as an actor who revelled in playing mavericks and misfits. He was seen as the defiantly flamboyant homosexual Quentin Crisp in the ITV feature-length drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975), winning him a BAFTA award as best television actor, and the mad emperor Caligula in the BBC’s twelve-part adaptation of I Claudius (1976). He also starred as the murderer Raskolnikov in the BBC’s three-part serialization of Crime and Punishment (1979), doing ‘a brilliant job of exteriorizing interior turmoil’, according to the television critic Clive James (The Observer, 3 June 1979).
Most of Hurt’s remaining career was devoted to films. He won a BAFTA award as best supporting actor and received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max, the jailed heroin addict, in Midnight Express (1978), before playing Kane, the astronaut seen with a creature bursting out of his chest, in the sci-fi classic Alien (1979). His portrayal of the deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980), when he spent up to nine hours in the make-up department every day during filming, brought him a BAFTA award as best actor and another Oscar nomination. Following a rare comedy role as Jesus in the director Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I (1981), Hurt played the cancer-battling, Grand National-winning jockey Bob Champion in Champions (1984), a kidnapper in the crime drama The Hit (1984), and Winston Smith in 1984 (1984), a screen version of George Orwell’s dystopian novel.
Hurt returned to television as the Fool, opposite Laurence Olivier, in King Lear (1983) and later played the Hobbit-like title character in The Storyteller (1988), relating European folk tales to his sarcastic dog in a series combining actors with fantasy animals from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop; he then played the campaigning journalist and Labour MP Chris Mullin in the drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990). His distinctive deep, gravelly tones also made him in demand as a voice artist in animated films, bringing to life characters such as Hazel in Watership Down, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings (both 1978), and Snitter in The Plague Dogs (1982), and on television as General Woundwort in Watership Down (1999–2001) and the Dragon in the live-action series Merlin (2012).
Hurt’s other notable film roles included Stephen Ward, the society osteopath at the heart of the Profumo affair, in Scandal (1989), the marquis of Montrose in the Highland adventure Rob Roy (1995), and Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). He also played the kindly wand-maker Mr Ollivander in three Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts One and Two (2010 and 2011). He returned to television to act the Conservative MP in The Alan Clark Diaries (2004), revive his role as Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York (2009), and play the War Doctor, a previously unseen incarnation of the Time Lord, in two 2013 Doctor Who adventures.
On the London stage Hurt also acted Trigorin in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, 1985), Rakitin in Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (Albery Theatre, 1994), the title role in the Samuel Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape (Ambassadors Theatre, 2000), Andrey in Brian Friel’s Afterplay (Gielgud Theatre, 2002), and the First World War veteran Gustave in Gerald Sibleyras’s Heroes (Wyndham’s Theatre, 2005).
For much of his career Hurt had a reputation as a hell-raiser, dating back to his drinking days in the early 1960s with his fellow actors Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris. He finally gave up alcohol after being thrown out of the London lap-dancing club Spearmint Rhino in 2004.
Hurt lived for about fifteen years with the French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot (b. 1952), who died in a riding accident in 1983. His second marriage, on 6 September 1984 to Donna Lynne Peacock, née Laurence (b. 1946/7), from Texas, ended in divorce, and on 24 January 1990 he married Joan Adrienne (Jo) Dalton (b. 1959), a production assistant, with whom he had two sons, Alexander (Sasha) (b. 1990), and Nicolas (b. 1993). The marriage was dissolved in 1996. He had a long relationship with the writer Sarah Owens, with whom he lived in Ireland. Then, on 11 February 2005, he married Anwen Rees-Myers, née Smith (b. 1955), an actress, film producer, and casting director.
Hurt was made a CBE in the 2004 birthday honours list, knighted in the 2015 new year’s honours list, and won BAFTA’s award for outstanding British contribution to cinema in 2012. He died of pancreatic cancer at his home, Hawthorn House, in Thurning, Norfolk, on 25 January 2017, and was survived by his fourth wife, Anwen, and his two sons.
- I. Herbert, ed., Who’s who in the theatre, 16th edn (1977)
- The Observer (3 June 1979); (17 Jan 2010)
- The Independent (16 Sept 2002)
- Irish Times (28 Jan 2017)
- Daily Telegraph (30 Jan 2017)
- The Times (30 Jan 2017)
- The Guardian (30 Jan 2017)
- The Independent (30 Jan 2017)
- Lincolnshire Reporter (30 Jan 2017)
- John Hurt website, john.myembers.com/, accessed 20 July 2020
- ‘John Hurt’, IMDb, www.imdb.com/name/nm0000457/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1, accessed 20 July 2020
- P. Kemp, ‘Hurt, John (1940–)’ BFI Screen Online, www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/480266/index.html, accessed 20 July 2020
- ‘John Hurt biography (1940–)’ Film Reference, www.filmreference.com/film/43/John-Hurt.html, accessed 20 July 2020
- ‘John Hurt’, Theatricalia, theatricalia.com/person/38v/john-hurt, accessed 20 July 2020
- ‘John Hurt re-visits Lincoln’, Lincoln School Dramatic Society, Jan 2013, www.christs-hospital.lincs.sch.uk/joomla35/index.php/our-school/lchs-history/school-archive/122-item-of-interest-10-john-hurt-re-visits-lincoln, accessed 20 July 2020
- T. Bates, ‘John Hurt—famous Derbyshire people’, Peak District Online, www.peakdistrictonline.co.uk/john-hurt-famous-derbyshire-people-c2518.html, accessed 20 July 2020
- WW (2017)
- G. Keen, bromide print, 1966, NPG
- L. Morley, bromide print, ‘Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs’, with Rodney Bewes, Tim Preece, and Kenneth Colley, 1966, NPG
- L. Morley, bromide print, 1967, NPG
- L. Morley, resin print, 1967, NPG
- J. Swannell, bromide print, 1977, NPG
- Lord Snowdon, gelatin silver print, 1980, NPG
- C. Perry, C-type colour print, 1980, NPG
- T. Leighton, bromide print, 1984, NPG
- A. Thain, resin print, 1986, NPG
- T. Leighton, bromide print, with Ian McKellen in ‘Scandal’, 1988, NPG
- J. Swannell, iris print, 1990, NPG
- S. Pearson Wright, oils, 2000, NPG
- obituary photographs